In Ore., once-exiled Indians are asked to return Nez Perce, forced out in 1877, now could give an economic boost


JOSEPH, Ore. -- They saved Lewis and Clark from starvation, helped many an Oregon Trail straggler find the way west, and outfoxed the U.S. Army in battles that are studied by military historians to this day.

Yet for all their standing in the history books, the Nez Perce have never been able to regain a foothold in the land they were forced to leave in 1877 -- an exile that led to one of the last major Indian wars in North America.

But now, in a turn of history and uncommon fate, the people who live in the mountain valley that was taken from the Nez Perce want the Indians to return and are even assembling the financing to buy a large patch of real estate for them. They regard the return of the Nez Perce as a way to help replace the dying logging and ranching economy that was created as a justification for removing the Indians in the first place.

"They're opening the door for the trail home -- I never thought I'd see the day," said Earl (Taz) Conner, one of about 4,000 Nez Perce in North America.

Conner is a direct descendant of Old Chief Joseph, for whom this town is named and whose burial site is a prime tourist attraction here in the Wallowa Valley, in northeastern Oregon. "It is really ironic, asking us Indians to return after booting us out of there in 1877."

These days, the people in the valley see the tribe as a potent economic resource. They hope to set aside land for an interpretive center they believe will be a tourist magnet, as well as a year-round cultural and camping site for the Nez Perce.

A remote, mountainous area, four hours of hard driving from the nearest city of any size, Wallowa County has suffered economically in the past decade as timber mills have closed and cattle prices have plunged. The Nez Perce have long since disappeared, leaving only a little cemetery at the foot of Wallowa Lake. Also known as the Sahaptin, they were given the name Nez Perce (meaning pierced nose) by the French because some of the Indians wore nose pendants.

Tourists from all over the world come to see the area and the heart-stopping scenery. In Germany, where the fascination with American Indians knows few bounds, the Wallowa Valley may be as well known as Cooperstown is to American baseball fans.

Until now, among the ranchers and cowboys here, there has been ambivalence about the Indians who were driven out.

"I wouldn't call it guilt, but now that some of the old-timers here have fallen on hard times, they can appreciate a little better what happened to the Nez Perce," said Paul Henderson, the National Park Service coordinator for the Oregon end of the 1,100-mile Nez Perce National Historic Trail, which marks the 1877 war.

In all the sorry history of American Indians, the Nez Perce story stands as a singular tale.

In part because of their long-standing good relations with the federal government dating to the Lewis and Clark expedition, in 1855, the Nez Perce were given official recognition of the land they lived on, about 13 million acres covering parts of what are now Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

But trespassers came, as part of the gold rushes in the 1860s and 1870s; the treaty was broken; and by the 1870s, the Army ordered the Nez Perce out of the Wallowa region and onto a much smaller reservation in Idaho. Rather than be rounded up, the Wallowa band fled, led by Young Chief Joseph -- son of the older chief.

Their 1,600-mile march, with the military in pursuit, over several months was page-one news around the world -- with the Indians winning most of the battles.

"On our part, the war was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime," the New York Times wrote in 1877.

Finally, just short of the Canadian border in what is now Montana, where the tribe had hoped to be taken in by other Indians, the starving, freezing band of Nez Perce surrendered.

Down the road from Joseph, in the town of Wallowa, community leaders say the aura of the Nez Perce may be the No. 1 draw. Their visitor brochures now proclaim Wallowa as "Gateway to the Land of Chief Joseph," and the Nez Perce Powwow -- which is separate from a similar gathering in Joseph -- is now in its sixth year.

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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